Hollywood actress Jane Fonda lobbied the British Government to intervene and stop the 1981 hunger strike, newly released files reveal.
The two-time Oscar winning star sent a telegram to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urging her to grant the prisoners political status.
Her message was sent in May 1981, at the height of a crisis which saw 10 republican prisoners starve themselves to death.
The telegram, dispatched to Downing Street, is also signed by her then husband Tom Hayden, a US social and political activist.
It states: “Please save the lives of the hunger strikers by granting them political status.
“The sanctity of human life must override any political considerations.”
The 1981 hunger strike triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for republicans and turning Thatcher into a hate figure for much of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community.
The Government’s perceived intransigence also drew widespread international condemnation, and files released by the Public Records Office in Belfast reveal how letters flooded in from across the world, including Russia, Australia and the US.
Ten hunger strikers died, including Bobby Sands who secured a propaganda coup by winning the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, before the protest was called off in early October.
Fonda was the most high-profile name in correspondence sent to Downing Street.
Now aged 74, she is best known for her acclaimed roles in films such as Klute, Coming Home, On Golden Pond and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
She is a well-known political activist and controversially opposed the Vietnam War. She also protested against the Iraq conflict and violence against women.
The files contain correspondence relating to the hunger strike from a wide variety of people.
One of the most poignant appeals to Thatcher came from Alice McElwee, whose son Thomas was the ninth prisoner to die after 62 days without food.
In a handwritten letter dated July 22, 1981 — 17 days before her son’s death — Mrs McElwee called for an end to the “dreadful hunger strike”.
“The way I see it, as long as the hunger strike goes on we will never have peace,” she said.
“I appeal to you as a mother to a mother to allow direct talks to take place between the prisoners and the Northern Ireland Office, to bring about a just solution to the prison struggle, save further loss of life and eventually bring peace to our troubled country.”
The letter was passed to Michael Alison, the minister responsible for prisons in Northern Ireland, and a reply was sent by his private secretary.
It states that while Mr Alison felt “great sympathy” for Mrs McElwee, it was her son’s decision whether to end the hunger strike.
“What he and his colleagues demand is far beyond what any reasonable government could concede, and cannot be the subject of negotiation,” the reply stated.
“After so many deaths and so much suffering in the community it must surely now be clear that the only way forward is for your son and the other hunger strikers to call off their fasts.”
The Government was also contacted by a former Dutch prisoner of war about the crisis.
Elka Schrijver (80) was held in Scheveningen prison, before being transported to Germany during the Second World War.
Referring to the right to associate freely with other republican prisoners, Ms Schrijver said the authorities would be “100% mad to allow this”.